Nick Grays, State Bank of Cross Plains

IB’s Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet Dane County’s professionals. This week features Nick Grays, AVP–commercial and ag underwriting manager, State Bank of Cross Plains.
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What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job and why?

Becoming a manager was not an obvious career track for me. So, what I’m most proud of all has to do with my growth in the role and my leadership style. First, I’m proud of myself for taking that risk and moving into management at all. Being a doer was a much more natural fit for me. I have always been a high-performing producer, so making the leap into management required some personal and professional growth. Looking back, I’m happy to think about what my approach to management has meant for those on my team. I have learned to measure my success by the success of others. Since I started, I have helped numerous employees get promotions and advance their careers. I’m proud to be part of their growth as well. The most rewarding part of my job is helping team members find their professional and personal purpose!

Who do you look up to or admire in business and why?

I personally have a lot of respect for Susan Bulgrin, who is a well-known business owner-operator in the Madison area. I was lucky enough to work at one of her Culver’s locations throughout college and she has heavily influenced how I look at the relationship between leaders and their teams. She treats all her employees like family, and she has the unique ability to make everyone who interacts with her a better person. I admire her ability to think outside of the box, push the status quo, and most importantly, seek the input of her team when making changes. Even though our professional paths have diverged, I’m proud to still call her a friend. It was not a surprise at all to see that her Culver’s locations recently donated 100% of their daily proceeds — or roughly $50,000 — to Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen to benefit Ukrainian refugees and those going hungry inside Ukraine. That’s just the kind of leader and person she is. I strive to be the same kind of leader with the employees and teams that I interact with on a regular basis.

What has been the high point of your career so far?

That’s a tough one, as I believe it’s just getting started. I would say finding my personal passion in the banking world has been the highlight. I’m proud of my ability to teach my team about complex analysis tools and new technologies. I have a passion for using the best tools and technology for making data-driven decisions. If I can get other people excited about these things that many find boring or overwhelming, then that’s a big win. My optimism regularly reminds me that there is always a better way to do something, even if it is good enough now. That commitment to continuous improvement has rubbed off on the people in my department and helped create an environment of possibility.

Thinking back on your career, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

I would tell him, “Identify your values.” The biggest challenge I’ve had in my career thus far has been choosing a direction to begin with! Sifting through my various interests proved difficult because at first glance, they have nothing in common. I attended UW–Madison as a neurobiology major on the pre-med track. I also had a strong interest in writing and served as both a sports writing intern for the Madison Mallards and a Badger sports reporter. In the end, I became a banker! That experience taught me that many skills are transferrable across professions. For instance, my scientific background is helpful in researching and analyzing information. My interest in writing has helped develop my communication skills, while conducting interviews helped develop my people skills. In truth, banking relies on data analytics, but is based on relationships at its core. Business development and local economies involve and impact everyone in the community. That’s what I love so much about my job now. Banking is family-oriented, allowing me to be the kind of husband and father I want to be. Banking is data-driven, letting me embrace my geeky analytical side. And banking is rooted in community support and personal relationships, which taps into my communication skills. It seems like an obvious fit now, but it took a lot of soul searching and self-awareness to get to this point.

What would you say are the best things about living and working in Dane County?

For me, Dane County is a place of opportunities. I’ve lived in multiple areas of Wisconsin and the Madison area gives you that exciting and diverse taste of urban life with a small-town feel. People here are proud to call it home and nothing beats the local lakes and the University of Wisconsin campus. The minute I became a Badger, I knew it would be hard to leave this place, which is a very common phenomenon. We also do a great job as a community of welcoming others and having a great time. I couldn’t ask for a better place to live with my wife and our two children.

Do you have any secret talents or abilities that people would be surprised to discover?

It’s definitely not a secret, but there’s a data analytics explosion going on in both sports and banking. When I realized how much data I used in my studies and for my regular job, I asked myself what other ways I could use my love for data analysis. The answer was college sports writing for fantasy football. In 2018, I was nominated for College Sports Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. This is a national award, and I was thrilled to be included in this process, especially because it is a blind ballot. They have judges read each entrant’s work without knowing whose it is. I have been writing for RotoWire for 10 years covering the Big 12 Conference. I do write-ups about all the players, along with suggestions about who to pick up through the wire for your fantasy team. Those who are close to me know it’s hard to get a hold of me during the football season.

What are your guilty pleasures?

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given my answers to the other questions, but I’m borderline obsessed with Microsoft Excel. I will build my own predictive models at home for fun and my family typically needs to encourage me to step away from the computer on the weekends, as I’m feverously trying to predict some sporting event or trend. It helps me focus on the predictive nature of data analysis rather than the emotional ups and downs of a game. I find it more enjoyable to watch a game from that standpoint. Other than that, I love fried chicken, golf, and traveling with my family.

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